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The Gift of Health: Update on H1N1 Virus

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By Ngoc Nguyen –

H1N1 virus has no cure, but there is a way to prevent it … get vaccinated! That’s the message health experts around the state are telling the public, even though H1N1 flu cases have peaked.

“It’s much too early to let our guard down,” says Ken August, spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health. “H1N1 flu cases may be decreasing, but [the virus] is not going away.”

The first two confirmed H1N1 cases in the country were found in California, and now a majority of counties in the state have reported at least one case of H1N1. The virus has hospitalized more than 7,546 Californians and caused nearly 397 deaths, according to the latest state data (http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/discond/Pages/H1N1Home.aspx).

The state estimates that more than 3 million Californians have become ill from the H1N1 flu.

“The vast majority of flu illnesses are of the H1N1 strain. We’re seeing almost none of the seasonal flu strain right now,” said August, who emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated against the strain that is out there the most.

As of early December, California has ordered 7 million doses of H1N1 vaccine. The number of doses ordered so far is enough to vaccinate about 18 percent of the state’s population against H1N1. Early supply problems hampered mass vaccination efforts, said Jonathan Fielding, M.D., public health officer for Los Angeles County.

“That’s really caused a lot of problems, because expectations were heightened, and we didn’t have enough vaccine to fulfill them and that caused anxiety,” he said. Los Angeles County has received 1.4 million doses, whereas the high-risk group is 5.5 million people, Fielding said.

Pregnant women, children, young adults under age 24 and people of all ages with chronic conditions are at increased risk of infection and complications from the flu. Health officials emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated against H1N1 flu, especially those in high-risk groups, and they said it is not too late to do so. As it takes up to two weeks after a vaccination for the body to develop immunity, those who want to protect themselves during the holiday season should get immunized in the next two weeks.

The experts say the epidemic has crested for now, but we’re likely to see additional waves. “We’ve already had a second, we could see a third wave,” said Fielding. The first wave of H1N1 infections occurred in the spring (April-June), with cases dropping off, but never disappearing, during the summer. Infections spiked again in October, after students went back to school.

Takashi Wada, M.D., public health officer for the City of Pasadena, said H1N1 cases could rebound again after the New Year, as people tend to congregate indoors more during the winter and travel over the holidays.

In Santa Clara County, H1N1 hospitalizations and school absenteeism have leveled off, according to Joy Alexiou, spokesperson for the county public health department. But, getting vaccinated is still a good idea, she says, because flu activity is still high. “Flus are notorious for changing and getting unpredictable,” Alexiou said. “Will there be another wave after the first of this year? We don’t know.” The message: Better to be safe than sorry. Get vaccinated.

Gift of Health is supported by grants from The California Endowment and California Community Foundation.

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